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Cracks in econ plan?

Although barely two weeks old, Archuleta County’s recently adopted economic development plan began to show cracks Tuesday, and those cracks could soon turn to fissures depending on future public outcry.

Issues with the plan came before the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) Tuesday when local builder Ron Christensen of Christensen Quality Construction Inc. asked the commission if they would include him in the building permit waiver and sales tax rebate program, despite the fact he pulled a building permit in May 2009 — two months before the program took effect.

“Because I pulled my permit in May instead of July, does that mean I should buy in Durango?” Christensen said.

According to the county legislation passed July 7, the 18-month plan provides a blanket fee waiver for all development-related fees, including the county’s building permit fee and any impact fees, beginning July 1, 2009. There is one caveat, however: In order for all fees to be waived, construction must be completed before the end of 2009. In 2010, the development fee waiver drops to 50 percent, given construction is completed before the end of said calendar year.

In addition, the plan calls for a 25-percent sales tax rebate on locally purchased construction and building materials, and for a 25-percent rebate for the use of local labor.

Christensen said he buys materials locally and employs local labor. Despite his efforts and willingness to undertake a construction project in tough economic times, however, he does not reap any benefits of the program.

“With everything being tight, it’s much cheaper for me to go out of town for materials,” Christensen said.

Christensen added that he struggled with the decision to build at all, but decided it was important to keep his employees working during the summer.

Based on town and county data, Christensen isn’t the only builder affected by the program’s July 1, 2009 implementation date.

According to county documents, county staff have issued 74 building permits since January, leaving 73 individuals or companies, aside from Christensen, snubbed by the legislation. According to the same documents, county staff issued 17 building permits in April, 17 in May and 23 in June.

According to town building officials, between January and June, town staff issued 20 building permits. Peak months, according to town documents, were April with 5 permits, May with 4 and June with 6.

In addition to excluding builders who charged ahead without local government fee waivers, some builders say the county plan, by imposing an end of 2009 completion date, makes it virtually impossible for them to enjoy maximum plan benefits.

The Pagosa Springs Town Council adopted identical legislation July 9 and county and town staff and elected officials have described the fee waiver plan as “bold,” “innovative,” “powerful” and “meaningful.” Yet the arbitrary start date has irked at least Christensen, and a handful of residents at two recent public meetings have questioned the plan’s overall merit and intent.

And perhaps they should.

A review of today’s town council agenda indicates the council is poised to repeal their Big Box retail regulations. Also embedded in the agenda is a discussion of tax increment financing, which, by common definition, would provide giveaways or government subsidies for new, large-format commercial projects (see related story on A1) and which hasn’t been conclusively proven as a viable economic development tool.

In response to Christensen’s request for inclusion into the fee waiver program, Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte said, “We had to draw the line somewhere. You’re always going to make someone unhappy.”

And Schulte added that, “It’s a policy question. I would suggest you talk to the town.”

Schulte and the commissioners agreed that the town and county should offer an identical program with the same start date.

In the meantime, and instead of waiving fees and rebating sales tax, the City of Durango has launched a Regional Green Business Incubator program to work in conjunction with the planned expansion of it’s recycling center.

According to a letter of support written by the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners, “The incubator will offer low cost leases to sustainability-minded businesses and environmental research and development groups. Business consulting and networking opportunities will be provided to member businesses, and environmental internships will be available to students of surrounding educational institutions ... With the incubation of green jobs, there is the likelihood that the permanent location of these businesses could be throughout the region ... Overall, Archuleta County believes the ... project will allow the surrounding region to work toward the long-term goal of sustainable development, while also providing aid to the region’s distressed economy ... .”

Town council meets today at noon at Town Hall to discuss repealing their Big Box regulations and tax increment financing.

Based on the response from Schulte and the BoCC, Christensen may also make his case before the Pagosa Springs Town Council.

james@pagosasun.com